To Have Been Exiled by Exiles

by Mark Chmiel

I was rereading Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, which is a great collection of essays on literature and  culture with exploration of the experiences of dislocation, exile, migration, and empire as well as an examination of autobiographical themes, like Egypt, music and piano; the intellectual and academic life; and Palestine.  Here are some reflections that caught my attention…

 

[Mahfouz] is not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola, and a Jules Romain. 318

Mahfouz’s novels, his characters and concerns, have been the privileged, if not always emulated, norm for most other Arab novelists, at a time when Arabic literature as a whole has remained marginal to Western readers for whom Fuentes, Garcia Marquez, Soyinka, and Rushdie have acquired vital cultural authority.  320

Indeed, in Lebanon the novel exists largely as a form recording its own impossibility, shading off or breaking into autobiography (as in the remarkable proliferation of Lebanese women’s writing), reportage, pastiche, or apparently authorless discourse.  322

What Khoury finds in these formless works is precisely what Western theorists have called “Post-Modern”: that amalgam principally of autobiography, story, fable, pastiche, and self-parody, highlighted by an insistent and eerie nostalgia.  323

Khoury, along with Mahmoud Darwish, is an artist who gives voice to rooted exiles and the plight of trapped refugees, to dissolving boundaries and changing identities, to radical demands and new languages. From this perspective Khoury’s work bids Mahfouz an inevitable and yet profoundly respectful farewell. 

For in its essence the intellectual life—and I here speak mainly about the social sciences and the humanities—is about the freedom to be critical: criticism is intellectual life and, while the academic precinct contains a great deal in it, the spirit is intellectual and critical, and neither reverential nor patriotic.  397

For the intellectual, to be “for” human rights means, in effect, to be willing to venture interpretations of those rights in the same place and with the same language employed by the dominant power, to dispute its hierarchy and methods, to elucidate what it has hidden, to pronounce what it has silenced or rendered unpronounceable. 430

[I]t’s extraordinarily important  to develop a sense not so much of professional vocation, but rather of what I would call an intellectual vocation….once you get out of the academy into the larger world, then the intellectual plays a particular role, and this role is essentially—it is perhaps easiest to define it in  terms of negatives— an opponent of consensus and orthodoxy, particularly at a moment in our society when the authorities of consensus and orthodoxy are so powerful, and the role of the individual, the voice of the individual, the small voice if you like, of the individual tends not to be heard. 502 

Intellectuals: Indeed, the intellectual vocation essentially is somehow to alleviate human suffering and not to celebrate what in effect does not need celebrating, whether that’s the state or the patria or any of these basically triumphalist agents in our society. 503

Because Palestine is uncomfortably, indeed scandalously, close to the Jewish experience of genocide it has been difficult at times even to pronounce the word Palestine, given that the entire state-supported policies by enormous powers were dedicated to making sure that the name, and more so the memory and the aspiration—to say nothing of the often startling similarity of namelessness and rejection—simply did, would, could not exist.  But we are after all a coherent people, and I have found a universal meaning in the experiences on behalf of Palestinian rights, whether because liberal human rights discourse, otherwise so eloquent about all other rights, has stood in embarrassed  silence before Palestine, looking the other way, or because Palestine provides the test-case for a true universalism on such matters as terror, refugees, and human rights, along with a real moral complexity often bypassed in the rush to various nationalist assertions.  xxxiv

Yet no Arab could say that in 1948 he was in any serious way detached or apart from the events in Palestine. 46

Perhaps this is the most extraordinary of exile’s fates: to have been exiled by exiles—to relive the actual process of up-rooting at the hands of exiles. 178

…the form and concern of these histories as artifacts require principal attention as self-aware, mixed genre performances in the present, full of learning, quotation and invention. 189

I have in mind, for instance, not only the antagonists mentioned at the beginning of this essay, but also the extraordinary behavior of an Elie Wiesel who has refused to translate the lessons of his own past into consistent criticism of Israel for doing what it has done and is doing right now to the Palestinians. 384